Why are we releasing DQ1HD as a free upgrade?

We recently announced an HD re-release of Defender's Quest 1, and that it will be a free upgrade. Some people want to know why.

Specifically, two things prompted me to write this article:

  1. This thread on our steam page by long-time DQ fan Whisperling, advising us not to release as an in-place upgrade.
    (He makes some good points which I'll address later)

  2. This article about people giving Monument Valley one-star hate reviews for daring to charge $1.99 for an expansion.
    (Rather than releasing it for free, because Mobile)

Both are worth reading to properly contextualize this article.


Why a free upgrade?

You might notice that's actually two decisions rolled into one, which should be justified independently:

  1. DQ1HD will be free to owners of the old game ("DQ1-legacy").
  2. We'll use existing store "slots" on Steam, GOG, etc, to deliver the new game files.

Decision 1 does not necessarily require decision 2 -- there are ways to make the upgrade free without making it "take over" the old game's store slots. However, decision 2 does require decision 1, unless we want to go with some complicated microtransaction unlock scheme (which would only work on Steam, but not Kongregate, GOG, Humble, or our own site).

I'll get to justifications for these two decisions in a second, but first I want to outline the basic plan for clarity's sake:

  1. DQ1HD will be a free upgrade to owners of DQ1-legacy.
  2. We'll deliver new game files via existing channels / store "slots."
  3. DQ1-legacy will remain fully playable on all channels, but without ongoing support.
  4. DQ1HD will include the old art from DQ1-legacy as an option.
  5. DQ1HD will be backwards-compatible with DQ1-legacy mods.

When you load it up in Steam, this is what you'll see (mockup):

And we'll have similar setups on all our other channels.

So, justifications. Let's start with decision 1 - why free?

1. We can afford it

(And we're pretty sure we'll make money)

This is our second free upgrade to Defender's Quest (the first was gold edition two years ago), and we've gotten a lot of comments from people thanking us for being kind and generous and nice and stuff. And we definitely appreciate it! And I guess it is a pretty unique situation. Defender's Quest is nearly three years old now, and we're still supporting it with updates, even though it's a single-player, content-heavy, story-based game, which I always thought was a terrible candidate for the "ongoing free updates" model. By all accounts the well should have dried up long ago, but for some reason people keep paying us money, so we keep updating the game, and I guess that makes people think we're awesome. It's a virtuous cycle for sure, but the virtue isn't entirely ours.

The other comment we get from fans is "Why don't other developers just do what you do? Be nice and friendly and generous and keep updating their game forever, because if they do, they'll be just as successful as Defender's Quest! Just look at those sales stats!"

First of all, I really, really, really appreciate that sentiment. I can't say that enough. Just speaking for myself here, I know I don't deserve the impossibly awesome situation we've miraculously found ourselves in, and it's my duty and my honor to be grateful for it. I just want to also be extra-super-special sure that people don't think that developers who don't do all the "generous" things that we do are being greedy or bad.

For instance, that's exactly what some people are saying about the Monument Valley devs in those angry one-star reviews. These sentiments even invaded the comments in the TouchArcade article I mentioned above, here's the very first one:


The common definition of Greedy is "excessively or inordinately desirous of wealth, profit, etc.; avaricious:"

Honestly? If anyone's greedy, it's me -- people who are already successful and release free updates in reasonable assurance of even more success. Even better, people will tell me I'm awesome for it. For every developer like me, there's ten who worked just as hard on games that were just as good, but never got over the hump, and can't afford to do the things I can. They may not have any choice but to charge for content updates, and people hate them for it.

As the wise man hath said:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Though our luck could always run out, we're pretty sure if we release an update to DQ1 it will sell more copies. Even more crucially, it sells for a list price of $14.99, so even if we mark it down by 75%, with each sale we're still getting several wholly intact units of your American Earth Dollars. Based on our figures it's a pretty safe bet. If we had to sell Defender's Quest at mobile prices, we'd simply have to charge for the upgrades, or else just move on to a new game immediately after release, with no support.

And as long as I'm quoting scripture:

And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury, and He saw also a certain poor widow putting in two mites. So He said, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had.”

In other words, don't be too impressed when successful people act "generously", especially if doing so brings money or popularity. Save that sentiment for people who are generous and can't afford it, like all those crazy, beautiful, freeware game developers.

Now to be sure, nobody likes the nickel-and-dime crap you see with day-one-on-the-disk-horse-armor-DLC and blatantly cynical tripe like Dungeon Keeper Mobile, but that's not what we're dealing with -- most indepenent developers, especially mobile developers, make very little money.

Bottom line, other developers don't have the same options we do, and the same business models just don't and can't work for every game and every developer. Nor should we expect them to. We're only able to do this because we can afford to, and because in our (PC) ecosystem, we think it'll make money.


2. We're preparing for consoles

Though we haven't publicly commited to releasing on consoles just yet, we are looking into it really strongly, and this is something we're doing to make that possible if we can sort out the technical bits. The console platform holders have shown interest in both Defender's Quest 1 and Defender's Quest 2, and this is our plan for making the original game "console ready." If we don't make tons of money on the DQ1HD free upgrade, we still have new markets to look forward to.

I'm specifically pointing this out so people don't bug other developers about not releasing special editions for free just because we did. We're in a unique situation.

With that out of the way, let's move on to decision 2 -- why are we releasing DQ1HD as an in-place upgrade, rather than giving out coupons or keys or something for a new SKU?

3. Avoiding SKU Confusion

We have more than enough SKU's to manage as it is. At last count, we have Mac/Windows/Linux builds for Steam, Humble, and our own auto-update server, Mac/Windows builds for GOG, a web demo for our own site and GOG, a web-demo-with-in-app-upgrade-to-full-version for Kongregate, and downloadable Mac/Windows/Linux demos for our own site and Steam. And I'm not even counting Desura, et al., which are platforms I consider abandoned because their sales were so poor. All told, that's over 12 unique builds and about 20 different places to upload them.

If we made DQ1HD a new SKU, we'd greatly increase the number of builds we have to baby-sit, even if we dropped all support for DQ1-legacy.

We also can't necessarily assume that we'll get new store pages for DQ1HD just because we want them. And even if we could count on that, we couldn't count on everything going smoothly and quickly. By contrast, if I had the DQ1HD binaries ready today, I have total confidence that I could just shove them down the existing pipes and get the release done today. So a big part of this is avoiding technical headaches.

But there's another issue. Let's go back to Whisperling, who raises a great point:

If it was possible to have DQ1 and DQ1HD both on the storefront (ala Guacamelee and Guacamelee HD), would it be possible to have DQ1 owners simply click 'Add To Library For Free' for DQ1HD on the DQ1HD store page? Steam allows for games to have discounts if you own a different game in your library (like Deponia Trilogy being 30% off for every Deponia game you own), so I think this is possible.

It may very well be possible, and in a perfect world this would be a nice, friendly option that we'd strongly consider. But we don't live in a perfect world :)

Here's a short list of all the things that could (and probably would) go wrong:

Technical Hiccups

When we first launched on Steam, I set up a system to distribute Steam keys to all our previous FastSpring customers. Most of them got them, but to this day, I still get emails from people who bought the game between January-October of 2012 and still haven't received their Steam key (which I of course re-send on request). Many keys actually did arrive in inboxes only to go unnoticed, others were gobbled up by spam filters, and still others never arrived at all. So, even if Steam lets us distribute 100% off coupons or whatever, prior experience makes me skeptical that it would go smoothly. (This has less to do with concerns about Steam itself than technology in general).

Customer Confusion

Even if we can nail the technical implementation, creating two SKU's per store creates the inevitable problem for the customer of "which one is the real one?" Unless we just straight up take down the store page for DQ1-legacy (a problem in itself), people will wonder what the difference between "Defender's Quest: Valley of the Forgotten" and "Defender's Quest: Valley of the Forgotten HD" is, or just fail to notice the "HD" altogether. Some customers will follow links to the old store page and buy the old game, only to find out there's a "better" version that's been released. Other customers will buy the HD version and then wonder if the "classic" version was better because it was the "original theatric release" or something.

And some purchasers of the new version will also want access to the legacy version, so then we need to give out free coupons for DQ1HD purchasers, and since DQ1-legacy is giving a free unlock for DQ1HD, there's the small but very real chance of a technical glitch causing an infinite loop of coupons.

Furthermore, players who get both games in their library automatically could accidentally start playing the "wrong" one and wonder why everything is different, they just clicked on "Defender's Quest." And why shouldn't they? I do stuff like that all the time.

As for Guacamelee, here's what some of their steam threads look like:

Now, I'm not endorsing these comments, just pointing out the developer has to deal with them. That said this situation is a bit different from Monument Valley's. Along with the usual internet grumpiness, there's some genuine cause for confusion:

Do I want "Super Turbo Championship Edition" or "Gold Edition" ? Sure, the new one is probably "Super Turbo" given the more superlative name and the later date, but they both have the same price and "Gold Edition" sounds like an upgrade from a previous version, too. It makes me have to think, a violation of the first rule of usability. Throw in the fact that it might be a "sidegrade" rather than an upgrade and now I really don't know which version I want. I just want "Guacamelee."

And given we have the huge long name "Defender's Quest: Valley of the Forgotten", it's hard to add some special suffix onto that and reasonably expect people to see it at a glance.

To be clear, I 100% support Guacamelee's right to release a separate edition; I'm just using it as an illustration of how challenging it is to pull off proper consumer signaling, even in the (semi) absence of the "everything must be free" mentality of the mobile market.

Next up:

Old Media

Here's what Defender's Quest used to look like:

And here's what it looks like now:

A lot of the old media is still floating around the internet and gives people a misleading view of what the game looks like, and after the HD upgrade, the current visuals will have the same effect. If we leave DQ1-legacy around as a separate SKU, we also have to leave all the old screenshots and videos on that page up. Players who stumble accross that page instead of the HD edition page might think that's the "real" version, blunting the effect of the HD upgrade.

There's not much we can do about google searches, but we can at least control our own store pages.

4. Winding down support for DQ1-legacy

We want to end support for the Adobe AIR version of DQ as soon as possible because it's just a headache, especially for Mac and Linux. However, even if you stamp a "no longer supported" sign on something, you still get emails about it. To this day I still get bug reports about Super Energy Apocalypse and CellCraft, free games I worked on years ago and haven't touched since.

Releasing DQ1HD as an in-place upgrade makes it much more obvious that DQ1-legacy is officially deprecated and no longer supported, even if it is still playable. That lets us cleanly move on to supporting only games written in the new engine. If a user asks us about a bug in the old version, we can just point them towards the HD version, which they will have easy access to -- just click "Play HD version" in the popup menu!

5. Avoiding Orphaned Mods

A big concern of Whisperling's is that an in-place upgrade would risk old mods no longer being functional, because their authors never upgraded them to work with DQ1HD. This is a valid concern, and one of the reasons we're commiting to making DQ1HD backwards-compatible with old mods. Of course, the file systems don't exactly line up, so old mods will need to be converted. Here's how it will work:

  1. You're playing DQ1HD and try to play an old mod.
  2. "Hey! That mod was written for DQ1-legacy, would you like to convert it?"
  3. Converter Script processes the mod, updating filenames, locations, etc.
  4. Converter Script stashes the converted mod someplace safe, sprinkles it with metadata, and it shows up in your mod queue like anything else.
  5. Mod now works exactly like it did in DQ1-legacy, but you're locked to "original graphics" (non-HD) mode.

Of course, if the mod author chooses, they can update their mod to work with DQ1HD. But even if they never touch an old mod, we'll do our best to make sure they all work with the new system. Obviously, mods written for DQ1HD will not work if you try to load them in DQ1-legacy.

6. Visibility, Reviews, Stats, etc.

Whisperling (who really seems to be looking out for us!) also worries that not releasing under a new SKU means we won't get a fresh shot on the front page. This is a totally reasonable thing to expect, but in my experience it's not how Steam actually operates. A big update to an existing title can be just as big a deal, if not bigger, than simply releasing under a new game slot, so I don't think we'll hurt our chances for promotion.

A way bigger concern, however, is that releasing under a new SKU means we have to start from scratch with all-new steam reviews. A google search for our game shows an absolutely insane 10/10 rating, and that's not something I want to mess with:

Not only will a new SKU reset our reviews, it also dilutes our playtime stats, which is one of our strongest tools for seeking promotion. Usually stores want to give promotions to games that are already selling well, but they might give a shot to a smaller game that can say, "Did you know >40% of our players have logged 10 hours and 5% have even played for 50?"

If our players jump over to the DQ1HD SKU and start playing there, their playtime will be split and we'll no longer have a true idea of how much time each player is logging, and there's no way to meaningfully combine the stats. Sure, Steam playtime stats have known reliability issues, but they are still very useful in comparing steam games to one another. If we split the SKU's we muddy that signal even further.

In short, review and playtimes have a much bigger impact on securing front-page promotions than being a shiny new SKU :)

7. Summing Up

So, we're re-releasing Defender's Quest 1 as an HD special edition.

  • It will be free to current owners.
  • It will be an in-place upgrade, delivered through existing channels.
  • It won't break any of the old stuff.
  • It will have the old art if you want it and work with the old mods.

Not everyone can or even should do the weird crazy things we do.

Big thanks to Whisperling for asking great questions. Hopefully these insights into how we make our weird decisions have been interesting.

That's all! Thanks for reading :)